50 years ago, the sound of Philly Soul was born out of the legendary Philadelphia International Records. With the talents of The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, The Three Degrees, McFadden & Whitehead, and others, the label rewrote the standards of soul music. To celebrate all P.I.R. contributed to the world of music, we’re publishing a number of soul features this month, and giving away The Story of Philadelphia International Records prize pack, which includes vinyl, a turntable, and speakers.
How do you pick 20 songs that define an era — that represent a sound that means so much to so many people? It’s not easy, but the first thing that comes to mind is “emotion.”
The Philadelphia Sound, made famous by Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble, and Leon Huff, endures decades after its inception. Songs by The O’Jays, The Stylistics, Patti LaBelle, and Teddy Pendergrass — to name just a few — will never go out of style.
That’s a testament to the work of everyone involved, as they created everlasting soundscapes and wrote about universal topics that will always be a part of the human condition.
With all of that out of the way, let’s get into the list, shall we? Here are the 20 best Philly Sound songs of all time.
20. The Delfonics – “La-La (Means I Love You)”
It wasn’t easy putting this at number 20. Even in this position, it doesn’t mean this is a bad song; every song here is a high standard for the genre. “La-La (Means I Love You)” by The Delfonics is a perfect love song. It was perfect in 1968, it’s perfect in 2021, and it will remain perfect in 2038. Every band from The Jacksons to Prince have their own version of it, and it is The Delfonics’ legacy. From the second those drums hit, the song announces itself as something special and worthy of your time.
19. The Stylistics – “People Make the World Go Round”
“People Make the World Go Round” is haunting. Sonically, it might be the most divergent song on this list. Another example of musicians being inspired by their surroundings, the song details the effect the ’70s transit strikes had on residents of big cities, but exudes an understanding that we’re all connected. “People Make the World Go Round” is a brief reminder that what happens to one of us happens to all of us.
18. The Spinners – “The Rubberband Man”
Thom Bell and Linda Creed wrote “The Rubberband Man” song for Bell’s son, whose classmates were teasing him for being overweight. The funky rhythms and its cheerful nature continue to captivate audiences to this day. The song shows up in commercials, movies, and most recently, Avengers: Infinity War. With all that said, this is probably the best gift any parent could give their child.
17. The Spinners – “O-o-h Child”
We all have days when we feel like the world is crumbling around us. “O-o-h Child” is the anthem for those days. Originally recorded by Chicago’s the Five Stairsteps in 1970, it was covered by The Spinners that same year. Its most recent appearance in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy further etched its significance in pop culture, as a brand new generation was introduced to it in a different emotional context.
16. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes – “The Love I Lost”
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes didn’t mess around. “The Love I Lost” grabs your attention from the start. Once the singing comes in, it’s a foregone conclusion that the song will worm its way into your head and never leave. It’s also another case of very sad subject matter existing over an energetic and joyful beat. One wonders if this was all part of the plan for Philadelphia artists, as they managed to talk about deep subject matter that got people on the dance floors.
15. McFadden & Whitehead – “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now”
When this song starts, it’s hard not to think of disco. And by that, I mean hard not to think of images of disco our parents showed us. “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” just sounds like afros, bell bottoms, and good times. McFadden & Whitehead’s triumphant anthem is perfect for any celebratory occasion, but often shows up at family reunions and cookouts.
14. Patti LaBelle – “If Only You Knew”
“If Only You Knew” is Patti LaBelle’s tender side. And — yet again — it’s a song that’s never truly left us. Unlike other songs on this list, where someone is open about their emotions and feelings, LaBelle plays the role of a shy woman not ready to fully go there. It’s a change of pace for someone a lot of us think of now as a woman who always says what’s on her mind, but it’s necessary, too. LaBelle, like every artist on this list, speaks to the range of emotions we feel as humans. And there are days when even the most self-assured ones among us choke on our words.
13. MFSB – “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto”
Philadelphia artists were politically and socially astute as well. “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” is a call to arms. MFSB was Philadelphia International Records’ house band of very talented musicians. Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, The O’Jays, Dee Dee Shaw and Archie Bell were like the Wu Tang Clan of their day. They came together and made hit record after hit record, but this one is special.
The group proved they were never too far from what was going on in Philly, New York City, or every big city in America at the time. Their people were dying and living in substandard conditions, and they wanted to do something about it. Just goes to show “entertainers” and politics were always intertwined.
12. The Stylistics – “Betcha By Golly Wow”
Though it was originally written for Connie Stevens, “Betcha by Golly, Wow” was made for The Stylistics. Russell Thomkins Jr.’s falsetto is perfect for anything Thom Bell produced. It’s another song declaring one’s love through lyrics not only befitting a song, but a poem. Only a poet would talk about catching a falling star, reordering rainbows in their lover’s favorite shade, and writing a name across the sky. It’s beautiful in its simplicity and gets its point across with ease.
11. Teddy Pedergrass – “Close the Door”
To borrow a joke, Teddy Pedergrass’ songs told you to do something. “Close the Door” is no different, as it finds the legend serenading his lover but wanting to keep it behind closed doors. As a solo artist, Pedergrass brings the same energy that he did as a Blue Note, combining tenderness with authority. Like every song on this list, it’s lived on through other R&B artists over the years, and through hip-hop producers sampling it. Why do they love Teddy Pendergrass? Because their parents loved him. “Close the Door” makes it easy to see why.